SINÉAD HYNES is a closed book emotionally. She is not inclined to share what goes on inside her with her husband Alex, and only with difficulty with herself. For her, it is easier to lie in hospital, claiming she has respiratory illness, than to tell him the truth.
This is As You Were, the debut novel by County Galway writer Elaine Feeney, published by Harvill Secker. Despite the terrible circumstances Sinéad finds herself in, As You Were is never grim, never bleak, for there id great humour here, and much compassion.
The novel is often hilarious, with the humour coming mostly through the matriarchal Margaret Rose Sherlock, whose life, even as she recovers from a stroke, is one giant soap opera. It is also deeply poignant, as reflected in Jane, an 80-year-old still painfully in love with a girl from her youth who ended up in the Magdalene Laundries.
As You Were has been a long time coming. Originally scheduled for launch at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature, the Covid-19 Lockdown in March put paid to that. However, August has finally seen the book hit the shelves, and Elaine admits to being “very relieved”.
“It’s a strange time to launch a book into the world,” she tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. “It’s just a chaos I have never experienced before, so I feel a little selfish to be concerned about my book amid it all, but the bookshops are open and it’s nice to see it on the shelves.”
From poetry to prose
Elaine has come to prominence in Irish writing in recent years for her poetry collections Where’s Katie? (2010 ), The Radio Was Gospel (2014 ), and particularly Rise (2017 ). Rise was fearless and impassioned in its dealings with politics, history, Feminism, and Elaine’s own experiences of serious ill-health, themes prominent in As You Were.
Despite this - and surprisingly - it was never Elaine’s intention to write a novel, nor is the cancer stricken Sinéad based on Elaine herself. “I never had any intention of writing a novel, my intention was always to write poetry,” she says. “After I had been sick I was at home a lot and started experimenting with some auto-fiction about my illness, then this motley crew of characters started appearing in my head and became huge in my life.
'I don’t think we should be snobby about dialect and accents, that’s just a post-colonial hangover. This is our speech. I don’t like hierarchies'
“I found that the ‘I’ and the ‘My’, so prominent in poetry, didn’t fit the characters I wanted to write, as poetry is small and intimate. A novel is an investment in time, so I had all these cardboard cut-outs and sheets with plots, and ideas, and characters. There were some early chapters in the book that were more me, and about when I was ill, but I deleted them. They weren’t necessary. It became very separate very quickly, and what I wanted to create is what I call a hybrid between Casualty, Rear Window, Hamlet, and The Irish RM.”
‘This is our speech’
The Irish RM, based on the stories of Sommerville and Ross, was one of the great TV series of the 1980s. Starring Peter Bowles and Bryan Murray, it was a lively, spirited, comedy-drama with the native Irish finding ways to get one over the ex-British army officer and resident magistrate.
“I loved the one-upmanship and the Irish dialogue," says Elaine. "The way we speak fascinates me. I love listening to people chat, whether it’s just overhearing people on a bus or in a hospital ward, you’ll hear the most fascinating things, and that played into the novel.”
A striking feature of As You Were is how well dialogue and speech is observed. Each character has a distinct, individual, voice, with colloquialisms and regional accents are presented with naturalness, and are often highly humorous, but never parodic.
“It’s a risk to write in the vernacular, but it’s the language of community and family, and I want that represented,” says Elaine. “Books are people and about people and their struggles with life. I don’t think we should be snobby about dialect and accents, that’s just a post-colonial hangover. This is our speech. I don’t like hierarchies.”
‘Irish women are incredibly funny’
Sinéad Hynes is a workaholic, puts her career before her family, is a serial philanderer, and is emotionally withdrawn. These are characteristics usually associated with male characters. Rarely, if ever, are women portrayed as such in novels (or even TV and cinema ). Yet Sinead, despite her many flaws, remains highly sympathetic, one we root for despite any or all reservations.
'I think it would be impossible to have a conversation with a woman in her eighties, and not hear stories that are utterly tragic'
“Women like her intrigue me and I think it's important they are portrayed in literature," says Elaine. "I wanted to be brash and bold with that and see how far I could take it. The idea of her having affairs is about catharsis, about escaping the voices in her head, the pain, but it’s also about her being self-destructive, yet she never asks for the reader’s sympathy.
“She’s holding a secret, I couldn’t keep something like that to myself. When writing her, among the questions I asked was, ‘How can she do it? How did we become so busy that we’d ignore something to that extent? I wanted to look at the how and why - was it selfish of her not to tell, or was it selfless?”
As You Were is not just the story of Sinéad Hynes, but a story of the female experience in Ireland since Independence, as reflected through three generations - the overbearing influence of Roman Catholic morality and views on women; travelling abroad for an abortion; physically abusive relationships; institutionalised misogyny; and censure of both homosexuality and female sexuality - Sinéad, Jane, even the indefatigable Margaret Rose have experienced and endured some, or all, of this.
'I find Irish women to be incredibly funny. I wanted to bring that into the colloquialisms and the colourful, beautiful, frantic, and frenetic way Irish women express themselves'
“The historical perspective would matter to me,” says Elaine. “I think it would be impossible to have a conversation with a woman in her eighties, like Jane, and not hear stories that are utterly tragic, about childbirth, about abuse, about baby homes. For me, Jane is a tragic character, that level of aloneness, someone who had their journey stunted by the society of that time.
“As You Were is a big, noisy, inter-generational book, and I wanted the women of my grandmother’s generation represented as well, not as an aside, but as one of the principal characters. I also find Irish women to be incredibly funny, and I wanted to bring that into the colloquialisms and the colourful, beautiful, frantic, and frenetic way Irish women express themselves.”
As You Were is in this week's Dubray Top 10 bestsellers. Sinéad Gleeson will officially launch As You Were in a full length conversation and reading with Elaine, via Vintage Publishing in London in a special Live online event. Date TBC.